Your First Triathlon

Triathlon Running

There are many great reasons to take up triathlon as a sport. In my opinion, triathletes are some of the healthiest people around and it is probably one of the best sports out there for both young and old alike. Triathlons are great for health, great for relaxation, and great because of the very supportive and social community. Almost any town will have a local triathlon club that trains together and races together.  I am really excited about our triathlon team here on sweat4health!


Some are put off by the apparent high cost of the sport. Yes, people do spend ten thousand dollars on triathlon bikes but you dont have to! If you want to win significant prize money at highly competitive events then you might need a bike as expensive as your car but the rest of us dont.  People seem to forget that conditioning is FAR more important than equipment.  Lance Armstrong on a one speed could beat most people on their ten thousand dollar carbon fiber bikes.  When you pay big bucks for a bike you are buying two things: weight reduction and aerodynamics.  A really expensive bike might be 5 pounds lighter than a cheap road bike (I'm being generous here).  You can either pay $10,000 for a really light bike ... or you can lose 5 pounds of fat.  Losing the 5 pounds of fat is better because it will speed up your run time as well as your cycling time.  The second thing that money buys you in bikes is aerodynamics but there is a much cheaper way to get it.  Get a cheap pair of clip on aero-bars and a set of high pressure thin tires.  That gets you 85% of the way there on the aerodynamics with 1% of the cost.  So lets look at what you need and how much it will cost:

  • $20- $80 triathlon shorts
  • $10 - $30 goggles
  • $80 - $140 good running shoes
  • $0 - $1000 bike

The reason that I list $0 as the price of the bike is that I strongly suggest that for your first triathlon you either use the bike you have, even if its a mountain bike, or borrow a road bike from a friend.  The reason is that in training for your first triathlon you will learn a lot of things which will make your first bike purchase a lot smarter.  You will learn what you like and dont like about the bike you are borrowing.  You will quickly learn the degree to which you like the sport.  You might think its fun but not worth a major expenditure or you might think its the cat's meow and want to sell everything you own to buy a top-tier bike.  In either case, buy borrowing or using what you already have you will avoid the situation of immediate buyers regret from either having over-spent or under-spent on your first bike.


One thing I was confused about was the clothing. You do not swim in a speedo and then switch into cycling shorts, can you imagine the waiting line for the changing booth? What you do is get special cycling shorts that double as swim wear and running wear. You wear these for the whole event without changing. Seems odd at first, you mean you will bike away in dripping wet shorts? Yep, its not a problem - trust me. These shorts have significantly less padding than cycling shorts so they are much easier to run and swim in. Trust me, you really dont want to use a normal pair of cycling shorts. I have seen people do complete races in speedos but that seems really uncomfortable to me. They make really fancy and expensive triathlon racing singlets, skip them. Just get the cheepo tri-shorts and throw on a skin-tight Underarmor lycra top for sun protection during cycling and running.

Wetsuits are another issue. If you have never swam in a wetsuit then this is not obvious to you but you swim faster in a wetsuit, a lot faster. The buoyancy makes an incredible difference in your swim speed. Being freezing cold water is not the reason that people wear the wetsuits, we triathletes laugh at pain, you wear them to make you swim faster! Because of this, there are rules about when you can wear wetsuits and how thick they can be and these rules vary a bit from race to race.

Everybody I have seen swim uses ordinary swim goggles, I stand out somewhat here. For whatever reason, I have never been able to get a pair of goggles to fit me without leaking - maybe its my super-human nose. In any case, I just swim in a low volume scuba mask. Looks stupid, feels great.


I remember when I first started, I found the whole sport so confusing .. almost as confusing as Cricket.  How the races are run, how long they actually are, what order things are done in, what the whole "transition" thing was about, how they were timed, the list went on and on.  Relax, its simple.  You swim, you bike, you run across the finish line. - in that order.   I have never heard of an event with a different order.  It makes sense when you think about it.  Although every race I have seen has excellent kayak crews ready to pull injured swimmers out of the water at a seconds notice, you want to minimize the chance of swimmers cramping because its not only annoying but it can be dangerous.  Swimming first minimizes the chances of cramping.

Lets talk about the transitions, I found those really confusing at first.  "T1" (transition 1) is the first transition where you finish the swim, hustle to the bikes and jump on your bike and ride off.  Your race time for the event is the complete time from the start line to the finish line, the clock never stops - its not like the Tour De France.  Most races break all the times down for you into 6 different times.  Total time which determines who the winners are, swim time, T1 time, bike time, T2 time, and run time.  We talked about T1, as you probably have guessed T2 (transition 2) is when you finish biking, dump your bike, put on your shoes and run off.  At first I made the mistake of getting all wound up about the transitions, relax.  In your first few triathlons dont even bother trying to hurry, its much better to take your time.  The pros are a thing of beauty to watch in the transition areas, its like a ballet with not a wasted motion.  They are in and out before I have said 'Hi' to my friends.  In your first races its far more important to make sure you take the time to hydrate and eat in the transition areas.  If its hot, its even more important because its really hard to drink enough when you are gasping for air :)

There are two types of triathlons, the best kind for your first event is where there is just one transition area, T1 and T2 are in the same place.  This kind of event is shaped like a clover with 3 leaves with the transition area is in the middle.  You start in the center of the clover, you swim a loop out from there (the first clover leaf) and come back to the transition area in the middle, jump on your bike, ride out the second clover leaf, come back the the transition area and put on your running shoes, and run the third and final clover leaf back to the finish line at the transition area.  This kind of triathlon is best for your first because its so easy to organize.  You dump all your gear in one spot and you come back to that spot each time.

The other kind of triathlon is where T1 and T2 are in different locations.  In this kind of event, the finish line is typically vary far from the start line.  These events can be scenic and awesome but there is a lot of logistical overhead and they can be very confusing to beginners so avoid them.

How Long Is A Triathlon?

Triathlon refers to the sport where you swim, bike and run but there are descriptors that define how much of each you do that are quite confusing. It took me a few years to figure this out so let me spare you the confusion that I went thru.  The shortest event is called a "sprint triathlon" and this is what most people enter their first time.  The problem is that although there is a standard of sorts for a "sprint" length, nobody seems to follow it as near as I can tell.  Local event organizers choose lengths that make sense for their local conditions.  Now lets talk about the length of the events you will see:

Name Swim Bicycle Run
Sprint about 750 m
(about 1/2 mi)
about 20 km
(about 12 miles)
about 5 km
(about 3 miles)
Olympic 1.5 km
(0.93  mi)
40 km
(24.8  mi)
10 km
(6.2  mi)
Half Ironman 70.3 1.93 km
90 km
(56  mi)
21.09 km
(13.1  mi)
Long Course 1.93 km
(1.2  mi)
90 km
(56  mi)
21.09 km
(13.1  mi)
Full Ironman 3.86 km
(2.4  mi)
180 km
(112  mi)
42.2 km
(26.2  mi)
Ultra Distance 3.86 km
(2.4  mi)
180 km
(112  mi)
42.2 km
(26.2  mi)

Notice anything odd here?  A "Long Course" is exactly the same as a Half Ironman and a "Ultra Distance" is the same as a full Ironman so whats the difference?  Money.  The "Ironman" brand will sue anyone out of existence who uses their trademarked name in their event title without paying them a franchise fee so the rest of the world just made up their own names for the same event :)

Training Schedule

Start planning for your first triathlon about a year in advance.  The first six months of your triathon training should be general conditioning and fat loss.  You need to get your weight as low as possible before you start running a lot or you will have knee problems.  Consider doing something like my health boot camp or my health boot camp extended version.  If you are carrying a significant amount of bodyfat make sure to substitute biking, brisk walking, or swimming for the running.  During this time you can start working on each of your three skills independently.

Swimming.  Sign up for a swim class, find an instructor, or sign up for the masters swim program which is an awesome swim program in America, or FINA elsewhere. Get comfortable swimming and get instruction doing the freestyle stroke.  Start to slowly build up your distances.  Depending on your level, start working on alternate side breathing which is an awesome skill to have for triathlons.  Swim once or twice a week.

Biking.  If you have a serviceable bike, get it tuned up and ready to ride - a mountain bike is fine.  If you don't own a bike, see if you have a friend who will loan you a bike for the year.  Only as a last resort buy a new bike.  If you buy a bike without having a significant amount of cycling experience first, you will very likely end up being unhappy with your first purchase and suffer buyers regret long after its too late to do anything about it. Start with short bike rides and slowly increase the lengths.  Bike once or twice a week for at least 30 minutes each time

Running.  As mentioned before, if you are significantly over weight skip the running for now.  Get your bodyfat down to 20% or so before you start to keep from getting overuse injuries.  You still need to do cardiovascular conditioning though so do more cycling or swimming to make up the difference. If your bodyfat is not a major issue, go ahead and start my "run your first mile then a half marathon" program.

Six Months before race date

(coming soon)

Three months before race date

(coming soon)

Two months before race date

(coming soon)

One month to race date

(coming soon)

One week to race date

  • cease all caffeine consumption
  • stop all running
  • stop all swimming
  • stop all biking
  • tune up your bike
  • pack your gear bag and double check against my race checklist (coming)
  • if practical, drive the route in your car and visit the transition area.  It will save a lot of confusion on race day and increase your comfort level.
  • Read and re-read all emails from race organizers about what to do on race day.

Last week is easy! OK, except for quitting the coffee.  The reason for that is that to get a performance benefit from caffeine during the race you must get it out of your system.  If you are addicted, you will have headaches, be grouchy, and be very, very angry at me :)


triathlon biking

Triathlon Running

Triathlon Swimming